Can GOP bring blacks back to the party fold?

August 16, 1996|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- After spending some of the best times of their lives in political Siberia, black Republicans are tickled over Bob Dole's choice of Jack Kemp as his presidential running mate.

And they're not alone. Mr. Kemp's nomination is more than a victory for supply-siders. It's also a victory for conservatives who take more than a passive approach toward protecting minorities and helping the poor.

Mr. Kemp catches the irony when he jokingly calls himself a "bleeding heart conservative." Other conservatives have reached out to work alongside blacks and the poor, but few could match Mr. Kemp's enthusiasm and none could match his fame. Both are needed to give prominence to this year's great stealth issues: race and poverty.

Once there was a time when blacks voted overwhelmingly Republican. The "Party of Lincoln" was an activist party on behalf of black rights, and the Democrats were the party in league with segregationists.

Those roles began to reverse under Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's New Deal. Later, with the racially polarizing political strategies of Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, black voters began to feel increasingly ignored by one party and merely tolerated by the other.

After Bill Clinton won white swing voters in 1992 by publicly feuding with Jesse Jackson, many black voters began to feel like the tail dog in a sled team -- a lot of abuse and few benefits.

Every four years black Republicans could count on one thing at a GOP convention: being approached by story-hungry reporters asking, "Why are you here?"

Privately some were beginning to wonder about that themselves. That may help explain why, despite the good face put on the convention by retired Gen. Colin Powell's stirring speech, a survey revealed there are fewer black GOP delegates than in 1992 in Houston.

Boldly speaking

Jack Kemp has steadfastly continued to be a Bobby Kennedy of the Right, speaking out boldly on his party's moral obligation to provide low-income Americans with a Republican alternative path to the American dream.

It is that outspokenness, combined with a willingness to roll up his shirtsleeves and work with low-income public housing residents and others who are disadvantaged, that has made Mr. Kemp something of a nuisance to the party establishment. No one likes to be told to finish their broccoli when they're just beginning to enjoy their dessert.

Yet, the broccoli remains largely untouched. The Republicans' draconian welfare reform bill, for example, leaves poor people stranded, claims Kemp ally, Robert C. Woodson, founder of Washington's conservative grass-roots Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

"It's sort of like pulling a knife out of somebody's chest, then telling them to get up and walk. First you have to fix the wound."

Mr. Woodson and other black Republicans hope that Mr. Kemp as vice president will be an even more potent, and more irritating, voice of guilt in a Dole administration than he was as George Bush's secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

But, as much as Mr. Kemp is a unifier, he also represents an important fault line for the party's white majority, a deep philosophical divide that explains why he won fewer Republican primary votes in his 1988 presidential bid than did television evangelist Pat Robertson.

Secret exposed

Jack Kemp exposed the party's dirty little open secret: Too many Republican leaders still translate "urban agenda" as a euphemism for "people we don't particularly care about."

When Colin Powell declared, "The Republican party must always RTC be the party of inclusion," the delegates' standing ovation looked immediate, enthusiastic and heartfelt.

General Powell's message at the GOP convention was clear and unequivocal. The party had reached out to him and he accepted. But millions of other black Americans are still waiting.

Jack Kemp knows how to reach out. He should not be left to do it all alone.

Clarence Page writes a syndicated column.

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